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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 October, 2003, 16:28 GMT
Motherhood 'improves the brain'
Want to get braver? Get one of these, say researchers
Believe it or not, becoming a mother may actually make you calmer under pressure, according to US researchers.

The burst of hormones released around childbirth may adapt the brain to the demands of motherhood, say experts from the University of Richmond.

Experiments on rats found that new mothers appeared smarter, more resourceful and courageous than those who had never delivered pups.

Researcher Dr Craig Kinsley said that this could apply equally to humans.

Kinsley, from the University of Richmond, tested his theory by exposing rats to stresses - for example, putting them in a brightly lit room with plenty of open space, which is something that makes them agitated.

Levels of a key brain chemical in areas of the brain believed to be linked to stress and fear were then measured.

Female rats with litters tended to show far less sign of stress than those who had never mated.

Dark desires

Dr Kinsley said: "Rodents like dark, covered areas - they don't like open and lighted spaces."

"Virgin" females tended to freeze up when placed in these situations, while mothers went exploring.

There's something about pregnancy and subsequent exposure to offspring that create a more adaptive brain, one that's generally less susceptible to fear and stress
Dr Craig Kinsley, University of Richmond, US
Dr Kinsley said: "When we examined these animals' brains, the regions that regulate fear, such as the amygdala, showed less activation.

"Overall, they were much less fearful."

In addition, these qualities seemed to last long after the baby rats had grown up and left the nest.

"The effects appear to last for a lifetime, " he said.

Another study, in which the rats are asked to find insect "prey", also showed up the resourcefulness of mother rats.

"The virgin females are clueless - they don't know what to do.

"Lactating animals can snag it - it only takes them a minute, and points out how much more efficient a nursing mother is."

Many similarities

He said that while rats and humans were fairly different creatures on the face of it, many mammals shared very similar behaviours, and human mothers might also benefit at a basic level following the birth of their children.

"There's something about pregnancy and subsequent exposure to offspring that create a more adaptive brain, one that's generally less susceptible to fear and stress.

"You have the hormonal changes of pregnancy - this marinated brain - and then superimposed on the brain stimulation of the offspring."

Research from the same author has already demonstrated how giving birth may improve memory - mother rats completed maze puzzles far quicker than their virgin counterparts.

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13 Jul 02  |  Health
Mothers get memory boost
11 Nov 99  |  Science/Nature

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